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Connecting learning and life

Students identify social welfare needs and explore solutions in Elkton
By Colin Craib ('12) and Meredith Gauthier ('12)

Meredith Gauthier ('12) and Colin Craib ('12)

Meredith Gauthier ('12) and Colin Craib ('12) examine social and economic needs and solutions for residents of Elkton, Va.

How great is it when you take lessons from the classroom and change lives? This happens frequently at JMU. In spring 2011 students in PPA 462/PUAD 562 participated in community-based research to examine citizens’ needs and access to social services in Rockingham County. This course, an undergraduate/graduate survey on Social Welfare and Local Policy, is taught by Dr. Lili Peaslee, who designed the class to give students hands-on experience in learning about social welfare policy. The goal of the course is to produce something of value for the local community.

This course’s specific project was conceived in collaboration with Elkton Area United Services, a multiservice nonprofit organization in Elkton, Va., whose mission is to “initiate, foster and coordinate programs that improve the quality of life for the residents of the Elkton area while preserving their dignity and increasing their opportunity to be self-sufficient.” These programs include organizing food pantries, helping people pay bills, assisting with creating a balanced household budget and much more.

Learning about poverty can seem abstract for many JMU students who come from very different circumstances than those they are studying. Working with the staff in the Elkton Area United Services helped drive home the point that lessons learned in class are in fact a reality for many.

EAUS Executive Director Marsha Deavers spoke to the Social Welfare class early in the semester about the organization’s mission and some of the specific projects the group offers. “After Marsha told us about the profound need for social programs in Elkton, we became aware of how fortunate we are not only to be at JMU, but to have basic necessities,” says Brady Winston ('12), a senior public policy and administration major. “Knowing that people right outside campus have so much less really gave us encouragement to learn about programs that could help those near the JMU community.”

Students in the class worked to produce a needs assessment that EAUS will use to better serve their clients. Each student chose a specific area of social welfare policy to research, such as low-income housing, education, prisoner re-entry or transportation. In addition to collecting secondary data, the class surveyed a variety of social service providers in Rockingham County to try to get a sense of both the need and the resources available to EAUS clients. A handful of students also experienced more in-depth fieldwork by helping a JMU social work intern administer a survey to EAUS residents on health care, housing and transportation needs. After the survey results were gathered, students integrated data from the resident and provider surveys and U.S. Census demographic data to assess the level of need for the Elkton area. Students were able to provide recommendations to EAUS using material and information on the best practices they learned through the Social Welfare class. Students gave a formal presentation to the EAUS executive director and the Elkton town manager.

Working on this project taught us a lot that we normally would not have been able to grasp during a regular class. Going out and talking to some of the people whom we would be helping really brought home that we were making a difference and not just doing an academic exercise. One of the lessons we learned throughout the semester was that doing a project in the real world often takes much more time than anticipated. As a result we are still compiling and editing the final needs assessment. Additionally, we are using the information collected by the class to create a comprehensive guide to area services which will be made available to EAUS and their clients.

Deavers says, “This JMU project will provide valuable information to help EAUS expand its programs to meet community needs. The vast JMU resources are very beneficial for a small community and a small agency trying to meet the basic needs of those living near the poverty line.”